I've been in a bit of girl heaven for the past week or so, with Bernadette home on a break from the Tour, and Elizabeth back from college, proud graduate of Indiana University. Her mother flew up and drove her and all her personal effects back home in a U-haul, which effects include many unpacked boxes, a TV, a computer, a double bed, a sofa, etc. Mary Helyn put some into storage but the house is now cluttered with more stuff than it can accommodate, and the bathroom counter has become quickly festooned with all the paraphernalia that renders that room in essence an exclusive retreat for feminine ablution. No matter that a man can, for example, take a leak in less than half the time required of a woman - I await my turn, and permission to enter.
Her first night home, the ballerina, exhausted from the trip, flops into her sheetless bed and crashes. The morning after the second night, around 7:30 A.M., another kind of crash wakes both Mary Helyn and me from a dead sleep at the same instant. I mean we were brought straight up in bed as though a cannon had gone off in the next room. She cries out, "Elizabeth!" She hadn't seen her yet; she just knew. As we ran down the hall we could see only her feet. The rest of her - in dark T-shirt and grey sweats - was lying on the floor in the living room face down, face flat to the wood floor, not turned to one side; she was dead motionless and I'd never before seen anyone lie like that and my heart was gripped by a paroxysm of fear and anger and pity and all the measureless love one's child can elicit, but even in the best of times it was nothing like this. I descended at once. I had to get her off her face (Bernadette, who had been sleeping in the same room, was beside us too, now), and though fearing what I might see I slipped my arms beneath her, lay down beside her and gently rolled over so that she lay on top of me, one hand supporting her head, murmuring My baby, my baby, because that's all she is or ever will be to me, her mother calling her name - Elizabeth! Wake up, honey. Can you hear me, sweetie? - and for a moment it seemed she would. She sighed and tried to say something while my eyes scoured her face - she looked all right - and I felt all around her head for telltale bumps, unpleasantly soft to the touch, but I couldn't find any and a great relief flooded through me. It got choked off as she went out again. Her head fell back against my hand; her eyes rolled up in her skull. All I could see were the whites and we kept calling her name. Her legs went stiff and her hands did a funny twisting thing, a contortion like someone afflicted with a palsy, and a slight unceasing tremor ran through her whole body.
It seemed to go on forever. Still lying beneath and somewhat beside her, I watched the frozen whites of her eyes and felt for her wrist. "I can't feel her pulse," I said, but her mother said she'd be all right - we just had to wait it out. Finally she sprang awake, trying to sit up and open her eyes at the same time, but then had to fall back. Eventually I carried her to the couch. Her sister got a cold washcloth for her forehead. After a few minutes she grew nauseous, so then her mother held the trashcan while Bern wiped her mouth with another washcloth.
Gradually the story came out. She had awakened, itching terribly along her left side, thought something must have bitten her and went to the bathroom to check it out. When she saw it she panicked and tried to get back to bed, but made it only to the doorway, crashing into the floor fan and falling into the living room. She must have tried to break her fall, though she remembers nothing after leaving the bathroom.
We pulled up her shirt to have a look. An enormous mottle of raised welts ran from just beneath her left breast all the way to her hip. If these were insect or spider bites, it wasn't the work of just one but the assault of an army. Bernadette thought they looked like hives, and I tended to concur. But it was agreed the mattress and box springs had to be taken out and sprayed. U-hauls sometimes do this to people's belongings - infest them with fleas and other such vermin. But why, I wondered, was Bernadette, in the same room, not affected? And why on the second night and not the first? We took her to the hospital and our suspicions were, after many hours, confirmed. The bites were not bites but some kind of reaction. Oh. To what? They didn't know. Great. Her body's reacting to something of its own making. I see neurologists in our future. And allergists, all kinds of "ists."
She's a high stress kid, with a history of these fainting spells, but the history doesn't make them any easier to endure. I have a similar history, far less frequent in occurrence, but similar in manifestation. Mere stress will not do it for me. I require severe physical pain, usually accompanied by low blood sugar, or a malicious viral infection, or insufficient alcohol in my system. Just kidding about that last. I can joke now that I know she's okay.
But what stress brought this one on, reclining as she was in the bosom of her family's love? Even she doesn't know. But Bloomington had become her home and she had to leave, not just the town but all her friends, a beloved dance teacher, the beauty of winter and the changing seasons, all the familiar sights and sounds of her daily life and, of course, a boyfriend who was genuinely considerate of her. And then there's the matter of being cast upon the world with no job in your chosen field, and you have one dislocated young woman. Over time I have come to the conclusion that, with few exceptions, this world of ballet auditions is one of the most grueling and capricious exercises in narcissistic cruelty ever invented, not on the part of those attending but of those holding out the hope. Elizabeth's always believed (because it's always pretty much been true) that if she worked hard, put her heart and soul into a thing, never complained and was gracious to, rather than envious of, her fellows, she would be rewarded in some way. She has that much faith in the world's justice. She also believes that she can do a little something for God onstage, and because I have seen her dance, I will not be the one to wake her from her dreams. And so I pray for her unceasing.
* * * *
In the middle of the week an old friend from Gainesville came to town. We hadn't seen each other in fifteen years, and yet were a mere hour and a half away by car. When I went to Gainesville for a couple of Bern's golf tournaments we had stopped by his house, but he was never home. Of course I might have called ahead, but it didn't seem that important. We had our separate lives to lead now, and they were busy lives; we'd make contact eventually. Maybe. The past, and the people who played their part in yours, loses its urgency, until one day you wake and realize the past is all you have by which to measure your life, and that without those others - how you treated and were treated by them - it wouldn't amount to much.
It was good to see him. He was still vigorous and strong at 63, the chest robust, the shoulders hard. He still worked out. The stomach had moved forward a little, but not much. Our friendship spanned the bridge (my bridge) from pagan to Catholic, and though he had not crossed that bridge with me (I doubt he ever will) he did end up marrying a Catholic girl, an eminently civilizing force in his life, for the beast needed balance and she gave it to him. It's hard to let go of those pagan glory days. We studied writing together, taught at the same school, ran and worked out together, played tennis at the same club, hung out with the same friends and, with those same friends, went out into the night, and it was out there that most of the stuff I can't tell, and which is a part of that measure of life, happened. It's a past I have not hid from my children. I don't mind if they're amused by it, as long as they don't try to imitate it.
The girls hadn't seen him since they were eight and six respectively, so he was vague in their minds, but as he stood in the kitchen with a beer in hand and regaled us with stories remembered (he tells a good one) and those that had transpired since last we met, I could see in their eyes his memory reforming. He had bounced them on his knee, shown great fondness toward them, but never had any children of his own.
We snacked on crackers and Irish cheese, devoured good steaks for dinner, and drank lots of German beer for the main course. He brought me up to date on as many of our old acquaintances as I could bring to mind. Our writing teacher is in his eighties now, but still getting along and still spouting such heartfelt pronouncements as, "There's no sorrier human being than the professional academic." Another acquaintance (I can't say friend - just another of those characters who entered our circle for awhile, then disappeared in flight from, or in pursuit of, some ignominy, only to resurface at odd moments) is serving a 40 year sentence in federal prison for criminal activities pursued in association with a separatist militia. Another, a former pro football player once wanted by the FBI for horse thievery, is married and living a respectable life. A fourth, a former lead singer with a rock band, a bodybuilder, and a veteran of the Florida prison system for having part-timed as a cocaine dealer's bagman, is also on the straight and narrow. Another, a former Gator fullback, and now an English teacher at my old college, has been stricken with diabetes, the bad kind. He can't run and lift weights anymore, so he swims. Something about the effects of impact on a diabetic's body. But he survives. He was one of those who went out in the night with us, a vital and entertaining fellow whom I did consider a good friend, and I wonder if, in his affliction, he thinks more often now of God, for there was little evidence in those days that any of us did. But I don't ask. Another, who, like so many, wanted to write serious fiction but couldn't find a publisher, is now a Hollywood screenwriter. My friend's own brother, who also married a Catholic but converted in the process, still teaches high school math and has children in college. And so it went. Time passes, some people change, some have it forced upon them, and some, at least in their essentials, seem not to, even though at the last it will change us all right into the grave.
Somewhere in the midst of it all he mentioned a mutual friend from our tennis days. She had been a Lady Gator All-American and had played professionally for a while. In the U.S. Open, she had once nearly beaten Martina Navratilova until, as she told it, "I remembered who I was playing and lost." She eventually became close with the tennis pro at the Westside Park courts and ended up marrying him. They ran the facility together, and I played a lot of tennis with both. This was in the early eighties - she was in her twenties and I in my thirties. She was a joy to play with. Though she had given up the circuit for marriage she remained competitive, covering the court like a gazelle and wielding a blistering two-handed backhand. What I remember most, though, is her personal grace and sportsmanship. She never threw a tantrum or even complained, just played for the sheer joy of it. She was just nice to be around. So was her husband for that matter, similarly laid back on the court, and though possessing no overpowering weapons, it seemed nearly impossible to get the ball by him.
At any rate, said my friend, one night about 20 years later, in the summer of 2003, she complained on her way to the shower that she couldn't feel her hands, but apparently was not too worried about it. A few minutes later her husband hears her cry out to him from the bathroom. He runs in to find her collapsed in the shower. He goes down to her, of course, scoops her up, and there she died in his arms, perhaps was already dead. Just like that. Later the doctors would claim she suffered some strange constriction of one the pipes going to her heart. At the time of her death she was still a coach and a tennis player, and the mother of two children. Her name is Joyce Portman, after marriage, Oransky. This link will give you a picture of her in her tennis prime. First picture in the left column.
And of all the stories my friend told that night before he headed back out into it, toward home and the distance between us, this is the one that has stayed with me, the one I can't stop thinking about. God bless her soul.
* * * *
Bern left Friday to rejoin the Tour, and now she too is once again at a great distance. Elizabeth's still here, but she'll soon be departing for a big city to try one more audition. I'll be with both in the only way possible. Life is a gift, but it's always after us, chasing us down some road we can't see the end of. Not clearly anyway.